Abelard & Anselm; or How to Throw Yourself in Front of a Bus

Leon Morris once suggested that "the atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith" and that "unless we are right here it matters little . . . what we are like elsewhere" (The Cross in the New Testament, p. 5). He is surely right. But the saving work Christ accomplished on the cross has been interpreted in various and sometimes even conflicting ways from the beginning of Christian theology right down to the present. If a proper understanding of how Christ's death saves his people were as crucial as Morris suggests, then we would seem to have a somewhat embarrassing and possibly even paralyzing problem. How did the church endure when she was so long confused and conflicted about "the crucial doctrine of the faith"?

While the cross is absolutely this crucial to our theology it is not strictly necessary to understand precisely how Christ's death saves sinners to benefit from it. This is welcome news, reminding us that we are not saved by our ability to reason our way through to theological truth but by God's grace and faith in the crucified who lives and reigns and is willing and able to save all who call on him. Abelard had this in view when, in opposition to Anselm's view the atonement expounded in Cur Deus Homo, he set out a moral-influence theory in his commentary on Romans.

In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm explains that our savior had to be both God and man in order to satisfy the offended honor of our Sovereign on our behalf. Along the way he corrects a basic error in the ransom-to-Satan view advanced by many before him and gently pushes back on the close association of the number of the elect with the number of fallen angels--a popular piece of speculation at that time. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, Anselm does not argue "the death of Christ was an actual penalty inflicted on him as a substitute" in our place (Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 807). He instead reasons that "it is a necessary consequence" of the logic of forgiveness "that either the honor which has been taken away [from God by our sin] should be repaid, or punishment should follow" (Cur, 1.13, emphasis mine).

If the offended honor of God is not satisfied by a payment worthy of his divine dignity and majesty, he argues, then we will be punished for our sin. The Son of God, however, became man and voluntarily offered up his life on the cross as just such a payment. Because the Son's sinless, voluntary, and sacrificial gift of himself to the Father has infinite worth it not only satisfies the offended honor of God but also wins a reward that is graciously lavished on us. In this way, Anselm's theory of vicarious satisfaction of divine honor is compatible with the medieval scheme of merit that the Reformed theory of penal substitution overthrows.

Abelard found Anselm's argument from God's offended honor repugnant. Appealing to Paul, he countered that the cross is actually how "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). As sinners, we need the assurance of God's love for us that the cross publicly supplies to convince us that he yet loves us and is willing to receive all who call on him. So, while the demonstration of God's love is as objective for Abelard as the satisfaction of God's honor is for Anselm, on this view reconciliation occurs through the conversion of the sinner's affections as he convinces us "how much we ought to love him 'who spares not even his own Son' for us," rather than by the satisfaction of God's honor or justice (Abelard, "Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans," p. 279).

The death of Christ, however, cannot be a display of divine love if it is not necessary in order to save us from our sin. If I was out on a date with my wife one rainy night and turned to her, as we were strolling down the sidewalk huddled under our umbrella, and said "I love you this much" and then hurled myself in front of an oncoming bus, I don't think she would feel the love. Such a senseless act would more likely confirm her suspicion I'm really an idiot and probably leave her half peeved and utterly dismayed. The only way throwing myself in front of a bus counts as a loving act is if her welfare somehow demanded it--if my sacrifice was somehow necessary to save her.

Likewise, for the cross to demonstrate God's love for sinners it is not enough that Christ dies or that he dies voluntarily or even that he voluntarily dies "for us" in some sense. We must go further and hold that nothing less than Christ's voluntary death on the cross was sufficient to meet our need before God. Only, in other words, if his death is an objective satisfaction for all that has offended God and alienated his people from God can the death of Christ also be the demonstration of God's love for sinners that it is.